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A US-China War Should Be Unthinkable
Both sides need to take more steps away from their cold war paths
When Xi Jinping met Joe Biden for their summit talks on the sidelines of the G20 meeting in Bali earlier this month, the Chinese leader waited for the U.S. president to come to him.
The 69-year-old Xi had planted himself squarely in front of a stand of Chinese and American flags outside the hotel conference room where the talks would take place.
From there, Xi calmly watched as Biden trotted across the hotel lobby toward his counterpart and vigorously shook his hand for the waiting cameras.
Xi seemed to be pointedly demonstrating “li,” an ancient Confucian ritual of proper conduct in the emperor’s court, which in this case was a signal to all that Biden was coming to him as a supplicant.
The tableau made me think back to the China I lived in as a foreign correspondent in the early 1980s, when the country was just beginning its eventual rise to the status of a global economic and military superpower. Back then, China’s paramount leader Deng Xiaoping was eager to fuel his country’s growth via trade with America. So he toned down Beijing’s criticism of the United States, which had reached hysterical levels in previous years. Moreover, it would never have crossed Deng’s mind to try to diminish the stature of Ronald Reagan or George H.W. Bush in a public forum, if only because China was so far from being able to challenge the United States.
“Deng’s foreign policy was based on ‘hide your strength and bide your time’ principle,’” David Shambaugh, director of the China Policy Program at George Washington University noted in 2021.
How times have changed. Since Xi took power in 2012, China has grown full of itself, despite its many problems. When I visited in 2016, its foreign affairs officials and think tankers brimmed with a confidence bordering on bravado vis-a-vis the United States. Regarding the U.S. Navy’s so-called “freedom of navigation” forays off their shores, they would tap on maps of the Pacific and point to California and then ask, “What are you doing way over here?” Then they would ask me to imagine the American reaction if Chinese warships cruised up and down the California coast on similar exercises. The message was clear: American hegemony over the western Pacific was past its sell date. And China had both the grounds and, soon, the means to push us out. Under Xi, Chinese officials and party-owned news media were likewise pushing strong nationalist themes.
Around the same time, America also was voicing an increasingly militaristic attitude toward our trade imbalances with China and Beijing’s territorial claims to the South China Sea. Former President Donald Trump took advantage of this sentiment, slapping stiff tariffs on Chinese imports and igniting a trade war. While the FBI began making increasingly shrill warnings about Chinese spies, Trump deliberately pressed China’s hottest buttons, raising Taiwan’s diplomatic profile and proposing the sale of more and better weapons to the breakaway island’s government. He even blamed the Covid-19 epidemic on Beijing.
Under Biden, the fundamentals haven’t changed. With anti-China sentiment still strong on Capitol Hill and among ordinary Americans, he has erased the deliberate ambiguity on Taiwan that Nixon and Mao worked out in 1972, declaring Washington will defend Taiwan if it is attacked. Biden has also annoyed Beijing by announcing the sale of $1.1 billion in weapons to Taiwan. A bill proposing another $10 billion in weapons sales to Taiwan has strong bipartisan support.
Poking the Dragon
As a measure of anti-China sentiment on Capitol Hill, Senate Foreign Relations Committee Chairman Bob Menendez (D-NJ) has even proposed that arms sales to Taiwan be treated as those to a non-NATO ally. Let’s not forget that since Washingtin and Beijing formally established diplomatic relations in 1979, Washington severed its diplomatic recognition of Taiwan and agreed that the island is part of China.
U.S.-China relations are now at their lowest point in years. Powerful hawkish forces on both sides seem to be pushing the world’s two largest economies inexorably toward a military conflict that would be catastrophic for both —and the world—a possibly apocalyptic clash in which neither can realistically expect a quick, clean win.
Hardliners on China in the Biden administration and in Congress would do well to remember that in annual war games conducted by Washington think tanks over the past several years, the United States has repeatedly lost to Chinese forces in simulated confrontations over Taiwan and the South China Sea. In the most recent war game, conducted in August by the Center for Strategic and International Studies, U.S. forces intervening in a Chinese attack on Taiwan suffered enormous losses to ships, aircraft and personnel while succeeding only in fighting Chinese forces to a standstill.
We don’t know what Chinese generals or the politburo have learned from their own war games, but I’d guess that they understand that an invasion of deeply anti-communist, well-armed Taiwan would not be a cake walk. Russia’s experience in Ukraine has to be a lesson in that. Sending squadrons of Chinese war planes into Taiwanese airspace, presumably to test the reaction times of its air defenses, may be nerve-wracking, but victory can never be achieved only from the air. It will take ground troops. Meanwhile, Beijing can expect its invasion to produce a severe disruption of its trade and diplomatic relations with its Asian neighbors and Europe, not to mention the United States.
Fortunately, there are signals from both sides that they recognize the extremely perilous state of their relations and are moving to stabilize them, even as they gear for greater competition on the world stage.
At their Bali summit, Biden and Xi pledged more frequent communications. They agreed that U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken will travel to Beijing for follow-up talks.
Meanwhile, the Wall Street Journal reported that a few days before the summit, Xi sent a group of senior policy advisers and business executives to New York to meet with their American counterparts. The facilitator of the meeting was insurance executive Maurice “Hank” Greenberg, 97, whom officials in Beijing regard as a trusted old friend from his successful business dealings in China over the years. Greenberg, the CEO of the insurance and investment firm C.V. Starr & Co., kept the White House informed about the contacts.
According to the Journal, the two delegations discussed ways the two countries could peacefully deal with the Taiwan issue, as well as possible cooperation on North Korea and Russia’s invasion of Ukraine. The Chinese delegation offered to host a follow-up meeting in China next year.
That’s good, but talk is cheap. Both governments need to find ways to cool the cold war rhetoric and implement some confidence-building steps to restore greater trust and good will in their relations.
Here’s an idea: Xi’s “zero covid” lockdown policy has obviously backfired in a major way. He’s facing waves of protests from ordinary Chinese, some of whom are even calling for Xi’s resignation and the end of communism. The Biden administration could renew its offer to provide China with America’s mRNA Covid-19 vaccines, which have proven to be far more effective than China’s home-grown variety. An effective nationwide vaccination campaign in China would end the need for lockdowns and let the Chinese go back to work, helping revive both China’s economy and our own. As Xi is fond of saying, that would be a win-win.
Not that Xi is likely to accept such an offer, which would be a threat to his pride and perhaps weaken him in the eyes of his politburo. And I wouldn’t be surprised if Washington’s China hawks shot down such a proposal without a major concession from Xi.
And that’s the problem.
It’s time for both sides to find a way to change course. Because the one they’re on now is leading to a conflagration nobody should want.